Archive for December, 2009

Jane Eyre and the Mammogram

December 31, 2009

     “High school freshman literature is a killer.”  This statement comes from Ryan’s English teacher.

      He’s right, it’s one long read after another.  It’s also a fourteen year old boy’s nightmare.  The year begins with the Odyssey.  It may have all the violence and adventure that teenage boys crave, but it is also written in ancient language that they can’t understand.  Ryan didn’t need glasses to read the Odyssey, he needed hip waders to slog through it.  “Torture, Mom, that’s what it is, pure torture.  How could anybody enjoy a book where you have to read each part at least twice, ask your friends what they think it means, listen to your teacher drone on about what it means, which is nothing like what you and your friends think, and finally you have to go read the spark notes to understand it.  How could that possibly be interesting?  There are 24 chapters of it.” 

      At parent/teacher conference, I ask Mr. Azano, “What does Ryan have to look forward to after he finishes The Odyssey?”

      “Jane Eyre,” is his reply. 

      Oh great, I think, a teenage boy’s dream read.  I’m sure that Ryan will love  this book.  After all of his trouble with the Odyssey, I decide to read Jane Eyre with him. It wasn’t first on my list of winter reads, but I figure I can suffer with him.  That’s what parents do, right?  They suffer through things with their children.  Children don’t believe that, they think parents cause suffering. I go to Barnes and Noble and pay $7.99 for a book I don’t want to read.  

      Ryan is assigned two chapters per night, then has to answer discussion questions, fill out character analyses,  critically think.  Fourteen year old boys do not think critically, do not analyze or discuss anything other than video game strategy. I am resigned to a long, slow, literary experience.  I have assigned myself Jane Eyre.

      The first night of our assignment, Ryan meets me at the door, wanting to catch me having not done my homework. “Did you get your book?” he asks.

      “I got it, and even read two chapters on my lunch break,” I say, feeling kind of smug for having my assignment complete.

      “Yeah, I read mine too, before you got home.  It’s not too bad.  At least I can understand what she’s saying.” 

      I fix supper, and later that night we talk about the book and he answers his discussion questions.  1. What is your first impression of Jane Eyre?  What qualities would make her valuable as a friend? What qualities would make friendship with her difficult?  Explain.

      Why do teachers insist on making questions multi-dimentional?  I’m not sure whether it’s all boys, or just mine, but I have to pose one question or give one direction at a time.  I can’t lump three things into one sentence. If I do, they only complete the first task and leave off the others, never hearing or seeing past the first.  Ryan wonders why he only gets partial credit on his essay questions. Now we both know why. 

      I decide to take my copy of Jane Eyre to my mammogram appointment.  I figure I can get ahead on my reading while I wait.  I am called in for registration.  The registrar asks me all the familiar questions, address, phone number, emergency contact, work place.  Nothing has changed since 1986.  I live in the same house, have the same phone number, work at the same nursing home, am married to the same man, have the same breasts.  The only thing that has changed is the left one.  It has a lump. She doesn’t ask me about that.

      Back out in the waiting room, I notice how crowded it is for this early in the morning, how many women are waiting to be seen. I wonder how many are routine and how many are not.  I take out my book and glasses and begin my reading.  Names are called, women come and go.

      Jane is unhappy.  She lives with an abusive aunt and mean cousins. She is mistreated and is told that something is wrong with her.  She is damaged, and even though she is in a house full of people, she is alone. 

       I hear my name, put my book away,  and follow a  woman to a dressing room.  “Take off your sweater and bra,” she says.  “Use these wipes to take off your deodorant or any powder and put on this cape.  I’ll be back in one minute.”  I do as she asks and don my cape.  I feel like Super Breast Cancer Woman, naked from the waist up, in my little pink cape.  She returns for me and we enter the mammogram room.  I’ve been here before, but it’s more intimidating this time.  I’m feeling vulnerable.

      The technician introduces herself, but I cannot remember her name to save my life.  She is short and stout.  She is also kind, taking stock of my comfort and calling me “sweetie.”  She is older than I.  She positions me at the machine and adjusts the height as I am tall.  She looks as if she could use a step stool, she’s reaching up, and stands on her tip toes. We laugh about our differences in height.  I stand, feet pointing forward, leaning into the machine, turned just a bit to the right and she moves the press in place.  She asks me if I am in pain as she lowers the press, squeezing my breast and flattening it as far as it will compress.  I cross my eyes and grit out, “no, I’m alright.” 

      I wonder if the lump is mashed to the point of bursting inside me. I wonder if the cells, safe in their nest, begin scattering out and away from the stress, running in other directions to avoid the pressure.  I wonder it this makes it worse, but I don’t ask. The question seems silly.

      My technician peers at her screen.  She says to me, “You know it’s been a while since you have had a mammogram. Don’t wait so long between visits.  We find one to two breast cancers a day, just here at the Women’s Center.  You need to take good care of yourself.”

      “I know,” I say softly.

      She has me follow her back to the dressing room and hands me a plastic bag.  Usually, the technician tells me to get dressed and head back to the waiting room until the doctor reads the results.  This is different.  She gives me a robe to put on over my cape and tells me that she thinks that the doctor will order an ultrasound.  She asks me to have a seat on the “green sofa” and wait to be called.  “It was nice to meet you,” she says.

      I find out the “green sofa” area is a holding place for those of us who are different, who have special needs, who are not normal.  We sit there, lined up in our little capes and white robes, waiting.   The “green sofa” has a small pillow with a pink breast cancer symbol bow attached. The pillow rests there, waiting to remind us.  I’d like to throw it across the room.

      I take out my book and begin reading again while I wait.  Jane is in the red room, she’s been locked in there and told to sit on a chair and not move.  She knows her uncle died in this room and is afraid.  She’s afraid she will see his ghost.  She is the most frightened she’s ever been.

      A cute blond girl comes out and calls my name.  I follow her to an examining room.  It is dark and quiet there, the drapes are closed. She doesn’t say hello,  how are you, it’s a nice day outside.  She gives no pleasantries, no comfort.  She does say, “You can lie down on the table here and uncover your left breast.”  She unwinds a cord, squirts some jelly onto my breast and presses a device into the jelly and over my skin, moving it back and forth, pressing it into me. She pushes buttons on a computer screen as she works, making little “beeping” sounds.  As she is working, I have an overwhelming surge of emotion. I feel the tears behind my eyes, pressing to get out and run.  I will them to stop. I will not cry in front of this girl. When she is finished, she hands me a towel, tells me to wipe off and to get dressed.  She will come and take me to another room to wait for the doctor.

      This room is smaller, stark, with two chairs, hooks on the door and wall. I think it is another dressing room.  I take out my book and begin to read again.  Jane is crying uncontrollably.  She doesn’t understand why. Even the things that normally delight her, don’t now.  Bessie, the house maid and nurse, the only one who is remotely kind to her, worries about Jane, reads her stories, sings to her.

      There is a knock at the door.  A woman, near my own age, walks in. She has dark curly hair and a kind smile.  She extends her hand to me and introduces herself at Kate, the Breast Wellness Nurse. She asks me to come to her office.  The word office, has a scary sound to me.  Office can only mean one thing in this instance, and it isn’t good news.  I follow her, trying to be brave.  It’s a nice office with warm  dessert colored walls and open drapes. The view of the Blue Ridge is comforting, like a little piece of home.  Kate motions me to have a seat on her couch and she sits in her swivel office chair facing me.  “Dr. Payton, the radiologist, is reading your results now,” she says.  “He will come in and let you know what he’s found and what he suggests.  I see that you found this lump yourself,” she says. “That’s good, breast self exam is important.”

      I explain the story of finding it the day my mother called about my cousin’s breast cancer, how I put my hand to my heart and unconsciously started palpating my own breast, how I found the lump and how my left breast now feels like the 800 pound elephant  in the room.  We laugh together. She smiles, touches my hand with hers. She is concerned.  She has chosen the right profession. She is good.

      Kate leaves to find Dr. Peyton.  I take my book and start again.  Jane confronts her aunt. She tells her exactly what she thinks of her and her cousins. She is being sent away to school and hopes never to see her aunt’s house again.  Jane is nothing else, if not honest.  She boards a coach for the fifty mile trip to boarding school. She is alone, but excited.

      Dr. Peyton comes in, all starched in his royal blue shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow, hair spiked with gel, expensive watch on his arm. He’s young.  He shakes my hand and sits down, leans forward.  “I have looked at your mammogram and your ultrasound and I think this is a complex cyst. I don’t think it is cancerous, but I want to have it biopsied just to make sure.  We will send your results to your primary physician who will call and make an appointment for you to come in and discuss the results and your options.”

      “What are your recommendations?”

      “I would recommend that you see a breast specialist and have a needle biopsy.  He or she will numb the area with a local anesthetic, insert the needle and aspirate some of the fluid and tissue.  That’s sent off to pathology and you get the results in about three days.”

      “I would rather make the appointment for the biopsy today.  My cousin and aunt’s doctor is Dr. Summer.”  Dr. Payton looks a little surprised

      Kate jumps in.  “Let me call your primary physician and see if they will allow us to make the appointment for you.”  She dials the office with the number I give her and asks to speak to Dr. Hargrove.  She is given permission over the phone and calls Dr. Summer’s office.  I have an appointment for a needle biopsy on Dec. 16th at 11:30 a.m. I have to be there at 11:15 for registration and prep.

      I am feeling better about this lump.  Two physicians telling me they think it is a non-cancerous cyst reassures me.  I still won’t sleep well until I have the results from the biopsy, but I’m not quite so nervous and scared.

       I’m thinking Ryan and I will be well into Jane Eyre when the 16th rolls around.  I wonder where Jane will find herself during the biopsy visit and how she will be facing her challenges.  Ryan and I will just have to wait and see.

The Attic

December 29, 2009

        I remember this space from childhood.  It was shadowy with questions, exciting in my wonder. It smelled of pine and old times. The wooden beams sweated drops of sap in the summer that hardened into amber beads in winter.  I opened trunks and sorted through scalloped bordered black and white photographs of my family, and letters tied in blue ribbons. Their fancy faded script spoke of love and longing, homesickness, missing the taste of pot roast and potato salad, buddies being shot, and cold nights without blankets. The envelopes were white with blue and red stripes. USA Air Mail was stamped across them. The pages were fragile from their unfolding.  The words made me sigh when I read them.

      My grandmother’s wedding dress, nestled in pink tissue, whispered her innocence under my fingers. I pulled apart the translucent paper and touched the white Chantilly lace with a curious index finger. Tiny pearl buttons, like treasures from a jewel box were encircled by loops of satin. I imagined this cloud of femininity wrapped around my small, skinny body.  The gown  transforming me into someone more beautiful than I was. 

      Sometimes, I unwrapped my mother’s china tea set with plates that fit in the palm of my hand. I poured imaginary Earl Gray from a pot with a cracked lid.  “It broke,” my mother told me, “when my cat, Boots, knocked it over a long time ago.”   I could see boots, in all of his black and white finery, come to tea with my mother, the Queen.  Boots wore high top white fancy foot ware for the occasion.  When the dogs arrived, he was frightened away and spilled the tea, upsetting the party, and my mother. 

        I sat under the light of the eaves, turning the pages of old picture books illustrated with exotic orange birds and line drawings of old black men. I explored green jungles, swinging from tree to tree on vines.  Camels carried me to an oasis with a  palm tree and mirror bright water.  Princes kissed me awake and dwarves kept me safe from poisonous apples.  Sometimes I fell down rabbit holes and met smiling cats.  I got lost in time and adventure until my grandpa came looking for me. 

   “Mom, where are you?” 

    “Up here,” I call back.

    The attic stairs squeak under the weight of my son’s feet.  I see him emerge from below.  “Wow,” he says. “This place is a mess.”

       “I know,” I say.

     “Do you remember how much fun I used to have in the attic when I was little?” he asks.

     “Yeah, I remember.”

26″ Snowfall

December 26, 2009


     I usually spend too much money at Christmas.  By December 24th I realize that I’ve overdone it and start focusing on my bank balance to see how I can eek out the bills. All of my impulse buying happens the weekend before Christmas.  My self control freezes and I spend my savings trying to buy love.  This year we had a 26” snowfall the weekend before Christmas. The storm started at rush hour on Friday evening and the last flake fell pre-dawn Sunday. Snowflakes are tiny crystal miracles.  I wondered how many were in our 26” on the ground.  Traffic stopped, people walked in hip waders to the mailbox, only to find that the postman couldn’t keep his promise.  This year, instead of throwing myself into the shopping frenzy,  I sat at home, writing Christmas cards the old fashioned way because the electricity went out.  I read a book by the woodstove. I watched my children play in the snow. I drank hot chocolate with little marshmallows. I fed the birds.

     I wrapped the three presents I had for my husband and the boys, a hand-tooled belt with a hammered silver buckle, an 1865 volume of Virginia History, and a telescope for universe gazing. Presents were few, but special because they reached out to me from artisan booths, an antique book store and the pages of the Buck Saver earlier in the year. These gifts spoke to my heart in May, August and September and it listened, compelling me to shop for Christmas when the sun was warm.

     I spent eight months creating a photo book for my mother.  My camera and I chased sunsets west on Rt. 250, rested on our elbows, eye level with dandelion blooms, waited for raindrops to hang like tiny crystal balls from pine needles, and made old, abandoned houses feel like Home and Garden cover girls.  These treasures, along with my best words were bound in leather. The book was under the tree.  If I was stuck in the snow, my family would understand that at least I loved them a little bit.

     I had to work all week, early mornings and late evenings.  The holiday season in the nursing home is busy.  People in our community want to do nice things for old people at Christmas.  Citizens come in flocks to sing carols.  They buy boxes of fruit and sugar free candy to distribute.  Each elder receives a new pair of socks and a bottle of generic lotion in a plastic fishnet Santa stocking from the Salvation Army. If the resident has no feet, the toe ends of the socks are cut off and they are slipped over the arms as “geri sleeves” to protect fragile paper-thin skin.  Staff members gather, sort, box and label gifts so each resident receives at least one item on December 25th. A special menu of ground ham with glaze, instant mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables is planned for mid-day Christmas. It will be served to a lady at the dining table with the sparkly silk centerpiece.  She will sit with a woman who takes her teeth out and licks them between courses.  Christmas is not what anyone remembers.

     Work was especially difficult this week. Extra hours because of the snowstorm, and the holidays are sad for many of our elders.  Their pain extends to enfold us in its intensity.  We find ourselves offering more hugs and tissues than at any other time of year.  For some, we are the only family they have and most often, we don’t measure up. Some residents are related of our staff. It’s hard when your job and caring for your dying mother are the same.   A nurse, cook and CNA lost their mothers this week.  Three of our residents died and left three of our staff members orphaned at Christmas. So, we prepared for the usual Christmas sadness wrapped in glittery paper and curling ribbon, and we planned to attend three funerals.   

     It rained today. I got in the car at 7:00 this morning and drove on isolated roads to the nursing home.  I delivered gifts and stockings room to room, offering a “Merry Christmas” and a hug.  Some voices welcomed me.  My Santa hat received smiles.  Several residents said, “put it over there,” while others dug into the stocking, like it was their last breakfast. Some didn’t understand it was Christmas. That was a blessing.

     My boys met me at the door when I got home.  They were ready for Christmas to begin. They waited for me.  We gathered at the tree and the youngest played Santa. Packages were meager, and I worried about disappointment.  I shouldn’t have. It seems that my heart picks out good presents, and my impulse buying is unwarranted.

     The skies cleared tonight and the universe spread out, over, and around us.  We set up the telescope and pointed it at the Pleiades star cluster. Ryan calls it his “night diamonds.”  We took turns gazing at a gift eight light years away, not a video game, i-touch screen, or text message on a cell phone, but a miracle of nature, just like the snow the weekend before Christmas.

On the Inside Looking Out

December 26, 2009

      It’s morning again in room 207. Irene wakes to a knock at her door.  She turns on the bedside lamp and calls, “Who is it?”

      “Your breakfast is here,” a woman’s voice answers.

      “I’ll be right there.” Irene answers.

      Irene puts on her robe and opens the door to the nursing assistant with a tray in her hands.  “Come on in dear, you can set it right over there on the table.”  She lifts the dome lid from the tray and finds her favorite, two hard boiled eggs and two strips of crisp bacon.  A hot cup of black coffee rounds out the meal and Irene is ready to start her day.

      She looks in her closet and pulls out her business suit, the navy pinstripe that makes her look slimmer.  She chooses the white silk blouse because the feel of it against her skin reminds her of the time Lester was home more often. His fingertips liked silk. She can’t afford the bracelets that she sells at Miller and Ashby Jewelers, but she has a nice gold one that looks, from a distance, like it might have come from there.  Her hair has been set, her stockings are fresh, with no runs, and her heels are stylish.  She turns this way and that at the mirror, making sure that she sees perfection.  She may have some wrinkles on her face, but there will be none in her clothing.   She is ready for work.  Unlike most women of her generation, she’s a working girl.  She has to be, because Lester comes and goes as he pleases.  She can’t remember the last time he was home, or helping to pay the bills.  She’d be glad if he did come home though, even for just one night.

      Irene closes the door to her room and walks down the carpeted hallway past the doors of other residents.  Several of the doors are open, which seems odd to Irene, who thinks, “I always close and lock the door to my apartment.”  She finds herself looking into the lives of the people who allow examination.  Some are neat; some hoard, with newspapers, mail and boxes stacked or spilling over onto the floor.  For a moment, Irene wonders if intelligence depends on the amount of important papers you save.  She is tidy and organized. She cannot tolerate one thing out of place. She is meticulous.  She prides herself on it. She shakes her head in pity for the clutter of others. 

       Irene looks at the clock in the hallway.  It’s 8:30 already. She hurries her step; she doesn’t want to be late for work.  She looks into her purse for her keys. They are not there.  Before she can turn to go back and look for them, a woman passing her in the hallway says, “Good morning,  “I.”  Irene’s sister was the only one who called her “I.”  Was that Mary?  Irene’s attention diverts from the open purse.  She turns and walks in the direction of the voice. 

      “Mary, Mary is that you?  Mary?  Did you just pass me?”  She squints, looking for the dark haired woman who passed her. Irene raises her voice, calling loudly, “MARY!” She begins running as best as she can in her heels, calling Mary’s name.

      “Whoa, Irene, slow down, honey, why are you running?  Those heels are going to throw you,” a nurse dressed in a white uniform says as she puts her arm out in front of Irene to slow her pace.

      “It was my sister Mary. She called to me and I was trying to catch up to her.  Let me go find her,” Irene says, trying to push through the arm holding her back.  “Let me find her before she’s gone.  MARY!” Irene yells down the hallway.  The dark haired woman has rounded the corner, disappearing from Irene’s sight, but other people in the hallway stare at Irene as if she’s lost her mind. “Now look at what you’ve done,” Irene accuses the nurse.  “Mary’s gone and I’ll never find her.”

      “I’m sorry Irene. I was worried about you falling. Let’s walk in that direction and see if we can find her.  Tell me a little about your sister Mary.  What was she like?”

      Irene starts walking, but stops as she thinks.  “She was my little sister. I was born in 1919 and she was born six years later.  She looked up to me and always wanted to do what I did and go where I went.  She died right after Lester and I were married.  It nearly broke my Mother’s heart.” 

      Irene remembers that Mary was buried at Oak Lawn. It was a nice funeral, a beautiful day, Irene and Lester had sent pink gladiolas, Mary’s favorite. The preacher spoke about how love holds a family together.   Lester wasn’t at the funeral. He was “working” out of town that week.  Lester “worked” at a lot of things, lying mostly, and cheating. Irene’s jaw clenches.  Mary’s voice used to soothe her.

    Irene turns away quickly from the nurse and the stares and shaking heads of the strangers in the hallway.  She collects herself and her thoughts.  Where is she? What is she doing? She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, thinking, pushing the organization she loves to the forefront of her brain.  Opening her eyes again, she looks down at her business suit.  Oh, that’s right, she is going to work, Miller and Ashby Jewelers.  She can’t be late. She’s the breadwinner. She takes another deep breath, this one to calm her nerves.  She pulls the open purse up again and looks for her keys.  They are not there.  She must have left them on her dresser.

      Irene spots the Exit sign, clicks her purse closed, cutting off thoughts of the keys, and walks toward the sign.  She sees the parking lot and street beyond the lobby door.  There’s a mirror at the front door. Irene stops and looks at her reflection.  She looks good in her business suit,  professional, put-together, smart.  Her lipstick is smeared, though.  She reaches in her purse for a tissue, dabs at the smear and reapplies from the tube of rose color. Rose looks best with this suit.  She notices the reflection of the lobby receptionist in the mirror.  She smiles and waves at the nice young woman on the phone.  As she puts the lipstick away, she searches for her keys. They are not there. 

      The lobby door opens and the cool air catches Irene’s attention.  A good looking man in a suit holds the door open for her.  She closes her purse, smiles up at the man holding the door and walks out past him.  “Thank you very much sir, there are not many gentlemen left in the world today.”

      “You’re welcome, have a nice day, Ma’am.”

      Irene returns the sentiment and walks toward the cars in the parking lot.  She opens her purse, searching for her keys.  Now, where has she left her keys?  She must have left them in her apartment.  She turns back toward the building.  She opens the lobby door and walks inside.  The young woman who is the lobby receptionist hangs up the phone, smiles and says, “Good Morning, Irene.  Were you outside?”

      Irene turns and looks at the lobby door, thinking what an odd question.  “Yes, I just got here,” Irene says, placing her purse on the desk and signing the nursing home guest book.  The receptionist looks puzzled.

      “Are you alright, dear?” Irene asks.

       “Oh sure, I’m fine,” the receptionist says, shaking her head a bit.  “I just need to check that door and make sure that it’s working properly.  There’ve been some problems with it lately, usually it alarms when….”

      “Well, it was working just fine when I came in,” Irene says.  “How is my mother?  Have you seen her this evening?  I have been running my legs off today, working and running errands.  I’ve only just gotten an opportunity to get here to see her.”

       “This evening? Your mother? Your mother doesn’t…” the receptionist stumbles over her words.  “I, I don’t believe I’ve seen your mother.”

      “That’s alright,” Irene says, chuckling. “Why don’t you get a cup of strong coffee to perk you up, dear, and I’ll go look for her.  She can’t have wandered too far, can she?  It’s not like she can run away.”   Irene turns and walks into the carpeted hallway of the nursing home.  She shakes her head and thinks that no matter how many times she comes to visit, she is still depressed by the dazed looks and drooped heads.  She regrets the day she had to put her mother here.  If Lester wasn’t so selfish, she could have stayed at home and cared for her mother like a good daughter.  Her mother and father had warned her about Lester when she first took up with him, but she didn’t listen.  Her mother’s voice echoes in her head, “If you can’t listen, you have to feel.”  She had spent most of her life “feeling”, feeling cheated, taken advantage of, responsible for everything, and angry.  Those feelings beat at her, over and over again.

      She walks down the hall and spots a woman in a wheelchair, the one she calls Mama.  From the back, the woman’s wavy gray hair hangs to her shoulders.  Irene reminds herself to speak to the nurse before she leaves about getting her mother a cut and set.  She rounds the wheelchair and stops to look at the old lady.  Irene remembers the woman who knew every inch of her at one time, the one who used to sing “Irene Goodnight” to her when she was a little girl, the one who put a cool cloth to her head when she was sick and kissed her nightmares away, the one who now, never remembered who Irene was.  “Hello Mama,” Irene says.  “How are you feeling today?” 

      The woman looks up at her with angry eyes and says, “I’m not your Mama.  I’m not anyone’s Mama.  I never had children.  Get away from me you crazy old bat.  I don’t know why you insist that I am your mother; you’re older than I am.  Every day, you call me Mama, and every day, I tell you I’m not your Mama. Stop calling me that and leave me alone.”

       Irene reaches her hand out to the woman,  her eyes pleading for recognition, for a mother’s understanding.  This woman, who is no longer the mother she remembers, slaps Irene’s hand away and turns the wheelchair,  so that her back is to her only living child.  Irene has never felt more alone than she does at this moment.  A man’s love can come and go. Lester’s love was like that; she had come to expect that; but a mother’s love should stay.  Your mother should never forget you. Irene looks down at her hand, pink now and still stinging from the impact of her mother’s rejection.  She turns it over, staring at her palm.  She had it read one time by a fortune teller who told her that she would find perfect love, not money as she had hoped, but perfect love which she hadn’t expected to hear.  That fortune had given her hope at a time when she needed it.  She wanted that love to be Lester’s.  She now wishes that she had wanted it to be her mother’s.  Irene’s shoulders curve inward.  She feels tears well in her eyes as she rubs the back of her hand.   

     Irene attempts to console herself with the thought that her mother is not responsible anymore.  She’s confused. Confusion is an awful thing.  Having your mind stolen from you is the last insult you can be dealt.  Irene sends up a small prayer thanking the almighty that she is still in her good mind.  

      She sees a nursing assistant coming toward them in the hallway.  Irene motions for her to come closer and whispers, “Has anything happened to upset her this morning?  She just hit me.”

      “I don’t think so Irene, but you know how we all have good days and bad days.  This could be a bad day for her.   Sometimes it’s best just to leave people alone for a while, let them work it out.  Why don’t you give her a little space and come back later.  Are you hurt?”

      “Only my pride, dear,” Irene says with a shaky smile.  “Sounds like good advice.  Thank you for your help.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”

      Irene knows that her mother would be appalled and ashamed if she was in her right mind and could see how she was behaving.  “There for the Grace of God…,” Irene says out loud as she straightens her back and collects her purse from the table in the dayroom.  She needs to leave before dark.  She can’t see to drive in the dark anymore.  She opens her purse and looks for her keys.  They are not there.   Maybe she left them at the reception desk when she signed in.

      Irene walks toward the lobby.  The workers call her by her name and ask her how she is.   Some reach out and pat her or grasp her hand.   If she had to put her mother in a nursing home, at least this one is clean and has nice people.  She stops and asks the receptionist if she’s found a set of keys.  “Sorry Irene, no keys.  Maybe they’re in your room.”

      “You mean my mother’s room? No they can’t be there, we visited in the day room.  I think I may have left them in the car.   Goodness, I hope not.  Some poor confused soul could have gotten in my car, thinking it was theirs.  I’ll go out and check the car,” Irene says as she turns toward the front door.

      “Let me go with you, Irene,” says the receptionist. as the phone rings.  “Wait just a second for me to answer the phone and then we’ll both go look for your keys.”

      “Alright,” Irene says.  

      The young woman answers the phone and turns to look in a file drawer.   “You’re busy, dear, I’ll be fine,” says Irene.

      Irene steps to the door and puts her hand on it.  There’s a beeping sound.  Irene looks around, shrugs and pushes the panic bar at the door.  It’s locked, that’s strange; this is the front door. The parking lot is just on the other side of the door, the handicapped parking spaces, right there on the other side of the porch.  The beeping is coming faster.  Irene pushes harder and shakes the panic bar.  The beeping has become a shrill siren now and the door still won’t open.  Irene pushes harder, throwing her weight at the door.  “What is wrong with this door?” She breaks out in a sweat.  Her heart pounds.  Suddenly, the door gives, opens and Irene’s weight carries her headlong onto the porch.  She grabs for the railing as her ankle twists, and the heel of her shoe snaps off.  “Damn,” she says, catching herself on the railing and bending to inspect her shoe.  

      She hears the siren still shrieking , and feet running, pounding behind her, pounding like her heart, pounding like Lester did at the door when she locked him out of the house.  She turns her head to see two men in hospital uniforms running toward her.  They look harried and stern.  She expects them to run past her, to some medical emergency down the street, to answer that siren. Instead, they stop in front of her.  The burliest one says her name.  “Irene, where are you going?” 

      She doesn’t recognize him.  “I don’t know you.  How do you know my name?  And it’s none of your business where I’m going or what I’m doing,” she says, her eyes flashing anger.  “You must have me confused with someone else.”

      “Come on Irene, of course we know you. We see you every day, talk to you, help you out when you need it.”

      Irene stops and frowns. This worries her.  She wonders how these men know her name.  Why are they asking her questions? She doesn’t recognize them or understand why they are lying to her.  Fear fills her. She should run or scream, but doesn’t want to make a fool of herself.  She wonders if this is a joke that Lester is playing on her.  This would be something he would do.  “Did Lester put you up to this?” she asks.

      “No, Lester sent us to find you,” says the younger, smaller one.  “He’s inside waiting for you.”

      Irene stops.  Lester sent for her?  He’s home?  He missed her?  “He’s inside?” she asks, forgetting her fear, remembering Lester.

      “We saw him.   Let us help you back inside and we’ll look for him,” the burly one says.

   “Oh look, your shoe is broken,” says the younger man.  She can’t remember it breaking.  The young man picks up the heel. “Why don’t you put this in your purse so you won’t lose it.  That broken shoe will throw you off balance.  Let us help you back to your room so you don’t fall.”

      Irene puts the heel in her purse and snaps it shut. She slides the handle onto her arm and allows the men to assist her into the building.  “Lester’s there?  He sent for me?”

      “Let’s go check.  He’s probably there waiting for you now,” says the burley man.

      At the door to her room, the two men bid her farewell.  “Thank you for your help,” she calls.  They wave goodbye. “Such nice boys,” Irene says.  

      She opens the door of her room to the darkness.  The drapes are drawn against the sun and shadows cover the order of Irene’s world. As usual, Lester is not home.   She turns on the bedside lamp, slips off her shoes, and sits on the edge of the bed.   She picks up the shoe with the broken heel, wondering how it happened.  She will have to take it to the repair shop tomorrow.  She’ll have to leave a little early to drop it off on her way to work. Irene wonders what she did with the heel.  She gets up and takes off her business suit, hangs it and her blouse in the closet. She puts her underclothes in the hamper and opens her nightgown drawer.  She slips on the green silk one.  It feels good against her skin.  “Who knows,” she says.  “Lester may come home tonight.”  She pulls back the covers and slides between the crisp sheets.  She turns off the bedside light.  She closes her eyes, waiting. 

       Irene is awakened by a knock at the door.  She opens her eyes and pushes back the covers, gets up and takes her robe from the hook on the door. She slips it on and calls out, “Who is it?”

      “Your lunch is here,” says a man’s voice on the other side of the door.

      Irene opens the door just a crack to see a waiter with a tray.  “I didn’t order room service,” she says, “but since you’ve brought it, I believe I’m hungry.  Thank you.  Just put it on the table over there.”  Irene opens her purse to tip the waiter from room service.  She pulls out the heel of a shoe.  “Now I wonder where this came from?” she says.   She looks up at the waiter who shrugs.  Irene shrugs too and smiles at the nice young man, who looks just a little like Lester when he was younger and was home more often. 





December 25, 2009

       When I first met Mel, I felt sorry for her.  I thought of myself, and how I would miss my vision if it was taken from me by some force of fate.  I imagined the sadness of losing the purple of my morning glories,  the opaque green of the sea glass I search for at the shore, the rusty red of McIntosh apples in the fall orchard, and the four petaled white of  dogwood blossoms in spring.  What would I do minus the color in my world?


     I love faces, watching them, admiring their differences, the way brows furrow, eyes crinkle at the corners, noses turn up on the end and how cheeks dimple with a smile.  I study frowns when I’m sitting on a park bench and smirks at the food court in the mall.  I know people think I’m forward, looking directly at them as I do, but I can’t help myself. Faces fascinate me. If the power button to my vision was turned off, I would miss channel surfing profiles.


     Sometimes, for no other reason than to ride, I get in my car.  I turn left out of the driveway and find crooked gravel roads to places I’ve never met.  I’ve discovered silver ribbons of train rail, wooden bridges that clatter under my tires, fields of thatch and lavender thistles, old gray barns with red tin roofs, and dappled horses grazing by board fences.  Without my eyes, these would be lost to me.


     Mel had vision. It just wasn’t in her eyes. I was surprised one day when she said, “Train, you are very tall.”


     “How do you know I’m tall, Mel?”


     “Your voice is really far up there,” she said from her seat in the wheelchair. “I’d say you were as tall as most men.” She was right.


     Mel loved to talk and called me to her room to discuss the news, complain about the villain in her favorite soap opera on tv, teach me a new song she learned, or a Bible verse she thought might help me with my latest life crisis.  I was ashamed that I sometimes tried to sneak by her because my time was precious and I had work to do. She called to me when I turned the corner near her room. “How do you know it’s me coming down the hall, Mel, when I haven’t even said anything,” I asked her one day.


     “You wear soft soled shoes, Train.  You don’t make much noise, but your steps are far apart. Your legs must be long, no one else here has that kind of stride.”  Again, she was right.  I couldn’t fool her into thinking I was not there.  


     Mel’s fingers were sensitive. She knew texture, like I knew color. “Your sweater is wool, Train.  I know because the yarn is course and a little hairy. It scratches on my fingertips.  What color is it?”


     Why did Mel ask me about color?   She was blind from birth, had never seen colors. In my mind, the concept would be lost to her. I didn’t ask, just gave her the information she requested.  “It’s blue,” I’d say.  Finally, one day, my curiosity got the best of me.  I asked her why she wanted to know about colors.


     “I see colors in heat, and cool, smell, sound, taste and feel,” she said.


     “Oh,” I said. “Tell me what you mean, Mel.  It sounds interesting.”


     “Ok, Train, here’s how I see colors. Blue is running water. Yellow is the way the sun warms my shoulders when I sit on the porch. Orange is a sharp bite and twang, like when you peel a fresh piece of fruit and it spritzes you.  Red is a crisp bite of apple. Green is the feel of soft moss growing on rocks. Tan is the grit of sand, and the way it feels slipping between my fingers.  White is the softness of a cotton ball. Silver is a bell ringing, and black is the quietest quiet you can hear.” 


     At that moment, Mel’s world began to make more sense to me. I no longer felt sorry for her.  Her vision was far superior to my own.  I stopped seeing her as blind, and started seeing her as Mel.  She died in 2003, I miss her wisdom and my lessons in seeing without eyes. I went to pay my last respects to her at the funeral home.  She was wearing her favorite dress. It was the soft color of Mel’s first puppy and the richness of her favorite dessert, gingerbread.